By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Pittsburgh Public Schools needs as many as 10,000 more computer devices in order to provide online education to all 23,000 students, but it will launch a remote education program next week that combines virtual learning with paper and pencil lessons.
During a webinar this afternoon, PPS officials outlined how seniors, who have been issued laptops, will start classes tomorrow and students in other grades will receive their lesson packets either online or on paper over the next week in anticipation of an April 22 remote teaching launch.
“Moving instructions for 23,000 students from brick and mortar classrooms to remote learning via online and instructional packets is no easy task. It takes significant planning,” said Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.
He said staff has been “working around the clock” to make it happen and that teachers will be calling all students on their rosters this week. The student services department will reach out to families that teachers are unable to contact to see if they need additional support or resources, said David May-Stein, chief of school performance.
Hamlet said 2,000 teachers and other school staff members have trained for the remote delivery of education. More than 20,000 lesson packets will be delivered this week to “ensure that all students have access to the same materials,” Hamlet said. That includes students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless students and those in foster care.
For seniors, classes will be held synchronously, with teachers providing their lessons in real-time if students want to log in. Teachers will also record their lessons so that students can listen at a more convenient time, particularly if multiple members of a family are using the same technology devices.
It was also announced that commencement for seniors will be held in a virtual ceremony that May-Stein said will be “as special and unique as possible for our students.”
For students in lower grades, lessons will be provided asynchronously, which means teachers will post lessons online for students to complete at their own pace. Teachers will hold office hours during which students can email or call for assistance and instructional aides will be available as well.
Instruction packets will include estimates of how much time each lesson should take, again in the event that family members need to schedule time on shared devices.
For online lessons, the district will use the Microsoft Teams platform, but teachers also will be permitted to use Google School or Schoolology if they and their students are already familiar with it.
The district has distributed thousands of technology devices and is trying to raise money for the estimated 10,000 that Theodore Dwyer, chief of data, research, assessment and accountability, said are still needed. A remote learning fund has been set up through the Pittsburgh Foundation.
Hamlet said his ultimate goal for the district is to eventually provide a technology device to every student, not only for remote learning but to enhance classroom learning as well.
Students who don’t have access to online learning can complete their lessons on paper and either call teachers to go over them or take photos and text their completed assignments.
The district will use teletherapy for mental health and psychological services. It will also provide ESL curriculum to English language learners along with extra support for those students and language translation services for their families.
Students with disabilities will receive adapted lessons and those who use assistive technology devices will continue to receive technical support for the devices.
Hamlet acknowledged attendance could be an issue, citing reports from other states saying large numbers of students were not completing remote assignments.
In Pittsburgh, attendance will be taken by teachers who will report who is logging onto online platforms and who is turning in assignments. After a period of time, teachers will report the roster of students they have had no contact with and district staff will make extra attempts to reach the families via phone calls, emails and through service providers who may be working with the families.
The district is shying away from using a pass/fail grading system for fears that students won’t put their best efforts forward under such a system. “We want to convey that we still have high expectations for students to engage and participate in learning,” May-Stein said.
Teachers should allow students to revise their work and “learn what they didn’t get on the first try,” said Minika Jenkins, chief academic officer.
Hamlet said he is “expecting drastic losses” in academic achievement because of the loss of a month of instruction — the district has been closed since March 13 when Gov. Tom Wolf issued his initial shut down order — and because of the sudden transition to remote learning.
The superintendent said he’d like to offer enhanced summer learning activities, including the Summer Dreamer Academy, but is unsure if that will be possible if social distancing and social isolation measures are still in place.